Let's talk form rejections, shall we?
We don't like rejections, but they're as much a part of the writing life as the typo. They're going to happen, but the important thing is to be able to decode what they mean. Here's my easy translation for anyone who wants to decode form rejections.
That's going to be just about every form rejection because writing is a business. Publishers need money, and agents need money, and therefore when they reject your work, it means nothing about its literary merit or your ability to write. Don't read too much into it.
Including the silent rejections. A non-response doesn't mean your work was so awful the agent couldn't even find the words to tell you its awfulness. It just means the agent deletes unwanted queries rather than hitting reply and attaching a signature with "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid this doesn't meet our needs at this time."
(By spectacular coincidence, this weekend, Janet Reid also blogged on the breakdown of her responses and what they meant.)
I also interpret a form rejection this way:
On the other end we have rejections where the agent writes, "Dear Jane, thank you so much. I started it before bed and meant to read only one chapter, and instead I finished at three in the morning and will require ten cups of coffee to get through today, but it was totally worth it. Unfortunately, while I really like Blossom's narrative voice, sentient cupcakes traditionally don't sell well unless the story also has a romantic element."
That agent has clearly read the work and is responding to specific elements of it and giving a specific reason why she's not going to represent it. (I always responded to these with a thank-you email because they took the time, and I heartily recommend not arguing with the agent. File it away and know you were close.)
But what do you do with this? "Dear Jane: I want to thank you so much for sending your book, The Big Cupcake. I have kept it so long because I didn't want to let it go. Unfortunately, I do not think I could sell this as it is, and I cannot see a way to revise this without compromising some of the elements I liked."
Receiving this, you might give up. You had an agent's attention, and s/he can't sell it. They even apologized for keeping it so long! Except it's a form rejection.
Don't believe me?
These are all the same looks-like-a-personal-rejection. They're a form. There's a sentence in the middle that sometimes gets modified, but it's a form.
Of course agencies need to use form rejections, but I'm of the personal opinion that form rejections ought to look like forms. An agent or editor can't lovingly hand-write a four-page critique of every manuscript that comes through (and rejections aren't all that much easier when they do come that way, if you're curious.) The agent probably wants to soften the blow with kind words, but writers are hungry for ways to improve. When a rejection hints at something, we latch onto it.
In the case of this form rejection, a writer may try to revise blindly, hoping to hit whatever elements the agent wanted changed but never specified. Or she may conclude her work is unsellable and do exactly what the kind words were designed to prevent: give up.
I received one looks-like-a-form rejection that encouraged me to seek a small press or self-publish. This is the agent's form rejection. Agents themselves admit this is a subjective business -- and yet this one form rejection offers a blanket statement that because this particular agent doesn't like your work, no big publisher will. What if a writer gives up because of this apparently personalized advice that's anything but personal?
I've seen form rejections that would leave a writer scrambling to beef up characterization in the first five pages when in actuality characterization was fine and everyone got the same advice.
So keep in mind, forms are everywhere, even where they don't appear to be.
My takeaway: before you do anything on a doesn't-seem-to-be-form rejection, check for specific elements relating to your story. If it could refer to any story on Earth, it's probably a form. Google a sentence out of the middle. See if ninety other people received the same reply. Because the main QueryTracker site allows users to post comments, members will post the agent's standard form rejection in the comments section, so rather than revise blindly or give up, check on QT and other forums to see if anyone has posted that agent's form reply.
And never, ever revise for vague feedback.
Jane Lebak's first novel The Wrong Enemy (originally titled The Guardian) will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.